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3 Tips to Overcome Shyness

Overcoming shyness often requires a long-term plan of transformative change.

Key points

  • Nearly one in two Americans identify as shy.
  • Shyness configures itself differently from one culture to another. ‎
  • Shy people may struggle to leave favorable impressions on others. ‎
  • To overcome shyness, consider embracing humility, thinking like a strategist, and ‎understanding the process of change. ‎

I've been meeting with Mohammed to understand his experience of immigrating to the United States. Mohammed was raised in Yemen and was excessively shy as a child. Today, he is so economical with words that he often seems to finish speaking before he starts.

Mohammed grew up in a province in Yemen known as Hadhramout where, he says, people are often unforthcoming with their feelings. Yet even in such a reserved environment, Mohammed's pronounced shyness often prevented him from leaving favorable impressions on people.

When I asked Mohammed just how his shyness had negatively affected him, he recounted a moment from 2014, when he received a scholarship to study in the United States. The scholarship was announced during a large gathering. Mohammed was extremely happy and wanted to thank the sponsors for the opportunity they had given him. But he found he couldn't utter a word. His shyness prevented him from expressing his gratitude and sharing the joyful experience with the crowd.

“I've always been an observant person,” Mohammed told me. “I'm never the center of attention.” Throughout my own conversations with him, his speaking style could be best described as fragmented. He never tells extended and coherent stories and seems to dislike doing so. Anyone listening would have to ask a lot of questions if they wanted to learn anything from him. Mohammed told me that when he was once asked to speak in front of an audience, he found a way to get out of it. He simply couldn't muster the courage to overcome his shyness and fear.

When I asked Mohammed what he thought was at the root of his shyness, he suggested that it is deeply cultural. In Hadhramout, he says, people are notorious for being shy, and many of his relatives and friends suffered from the same chronic shyness he did. It's a shyness that seems to be unique to Hadhramout, he says—when people engage in mundane daily interactions there, they rarely talk, and the concept of “small talk” doesn't exist in the Hadhrami culture.

However, shyness is limited neither to Mohammed nor to his province in Yemen. Approximately 40 to 50 percent of American adults consider themselves shy—meaning that nearly one in two Americans struggle with shyness. As Mohammed can attest, it's a struggle that can have consequences. Psychologist Brian Gilmartin, for example, has studied the ways in which chronic shyness complicates both platonic and romantic love.

Although psychologists have conducted some research on the consequences of shyness on individuals and societies, the trait has yet to be extensively investigated across cultures. Yet Mohammed's story is emblematic of the need to study shyness cross-culturally.

3 Tips To Address Shyness

What can shy people do to manage their shyness and navigate the world more effectively? I suggest the following:

  1. Embrace your shyness with humility. If shyness is negatively impacting your life, don't just ignore it; instead, embrace your predicament and openly acknowledge the need for change. Shyness is often painful and embarrassing, but fostering the humility necessary to admit there's a problem is the first step on the road to change.
  2. Think like a strategist. Having the right mindset is necessary to bring about any desired change. "Thinking like a strategist" means realizing that time is the most sacred and precious commodity you have and strategically thinking about the pros and cons of each approach in order to tackle your shyness most effectively. Thinking like a strategist doesn't mean consuming all the information about shyness that exists; rather, it means being deliberate and practicing good judgment as you embark on the path to changing your temperament
  3. Understand the process of change. Personality change is rarely easy. It is very challenging to, in essence, let certain parts of yourselves die while simultaneously bringing new parts to life. Moreover, such personal transformation doesn't tend to be linear, but sporadic and iterative. You may conquer your shyness one day but fail to do so the next. This is to be expected.


When shyness prevents a person from meeting their goals in life, it becomes a problematic condition that requires attention. Shyness tends to configure itself differently across cultures. Even so, the process of overcoming shyness is typically a long-term plan of transformative change.

This starts with simply accepting the conditions of shyness. Once that is achieved, then you have to think like a strategist since time and resources are limited. Finally, you should understand that change is not going to occur overnight—but rather through persistent and consistent efforts.

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